You see them at the gym…you see others use them…but don’t know if foam rollers could benefit you.  If you want to get the most from your workout (warm up and/or recovery), have knots or areas of tenderness or discomfort–chances are good you should be adding rollers to your routine.  Here’s a quick Foam Rollers 101 to help demystify foam rollers.

Why use a foam roller?

Known as myofascial release, rolling on foam rollers benefit our bodies in two essential ways:

  1. Improving circulation in our muscles which readies them for exercise, and
  2. Releasing the knots that can form in the fascia–connective tissue–in our bodies.  The fascia is a complex interlocking support structure within our bodies that surrounds all of our organs, muscles, bones and tendons.  For an in-depth discussion on fascia, read this article.  On a more general level, these knots can be formed through regular exercise OR even through faulty movement patterns.  These “knots” might be painful, but will definitely limit movement and ability.  Personal Trainer Lisa LaManna illustrated how these knots impede motion by describing a knot in a rubber band.  When knotted, the rubber band can’t stretch to capacity; remove the knot, and the rubber band’s “stretch” is restored.  Same with your muscles!

Where do I use a foam roller on my body?

Foam rollers are most commonly used for relief on three areas of the body:

  1.  IT Band relief.  The IT band runs from your hip down the outside of your leg and extends to your shin.  Repetitive motions such as running, cycling, hiking, walking, or even prolonged periods of sitting can cause the IT band to become tight–often casuing pain in the hip flexors, thigh or knee.  Check out these exercises to address a tight IT band (through gluteal strengthening).
  2. Piriformis muscle relief.  The piriformis muscle lies deep below the gluteal (butt) muscles and is important to hip flexibility, rotation and strength.  A tight or weak piriformis muscle can cause lower back pain, sciatic pain, hamstring issues, and impaired movement of the back and hips.  Here are additional exercises to address a tight or weakened piriformis muscle.
  3. Latissimus Dorsi relief.  Say what?  This is the large triangular muscle spanning much of the back that controls movement of the shoulder girdle and assists in breathing through expansion and contraction of the back rib cage.  For more on the “lats”, read this article.

How do I know which roller to choose?

Foam rollers are available in many colors, textures and densities.  Generally the rollers are approximately 6″ in diameter.  Rollers with a lot of surface texture or knobs are great for getting into smaller areas or for small frames (under the arms for the upper back area, for example).  In general, the texture needs to be firm enough to support your body weight and provide ample pressure to access the knots in the fibers.   “There does seem to be a correlation between price and quality,” according to Lisa.   The firmer the better when it comes to rollers.

How do I use the foam roller?

Position the area of the body that you are targeting on the roller.  Gently and s-l-o-w-l-y slide the roller over the area until you locate a knot, or trigger point.  Maintain pressure on the trigger point for up to 30 seconds–this may be rather painful at first, then continue the slow roll down the length of the area targeted.  Included are examples of the most common target areas for foam rolling.

Trainer Lisa LaManna rolling piriformis muscle.

Position for piriformis

Trainer Lisa LaManna rolling latissimus dorsi muscle.

Position for Lat

Trainer Lisa LaManna rolling IT Band

Position for IT Band

Trainer Lisa LaManna demonstrates just how slowly you should roll to reap the benefits of a roller.